When the COVID-19 pandemic caused an end to all spring semester in-person classes at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in March of 2020, the Department of Mathematics only had two weeks to transition all courses and departmental resources fully online and meet all of its students' needs.
Fortunately, the department was prepared. Since 2012, the First Year Math Task Force, led by Allan Donsig, has been working to improve instruction and student learning in introductory large-enrollment mathematics courses, including providing consistent instructional resources for the course instructors.
"We wanted to keep everyone's lives manageable by having them all put their minds together to create the things needed to support all of our students—and one another," said Josh Brummer, assistant professor of practice.
Brummer was managing Math 102 and Math 106; Nathan Wakefield was handling Math 100A, Math 101, and Math 103; Michelle Homp coordinated Math 203; and Kevin Gonzales and Cheryl Kane handled Math 104. In each course, the convener supported the instructors to work as a team to deal with the challenge of moving to all asynchronous courses for the rest of the spring semester.
"It was not everybody for themselves, doing their own thing and each individually building their own 'online instruction wheel.' It was a collective effort led by Josh and Nathan and the conveners and associate conveners," said Donsig, who chairs the task force and is vice chair of the department. "In the midst of, in what is effectively a teaching crisis, the investment the department has put into supporting instruction—by having people who are good at instruction and coordination— made a huge difference to our ability to implement systematic solutions at scale in a very short period of time. And that was a remarkable achievement."
The Friday before the students left for spring break, and to return home for the semester, Wakefield and Homp led a workshop showcasing best practices for online courses. In the last decade, Homp has taught many online courses for teachers across Nebraska, experience she generously shared during the sudden transition.
Brummer took the lead in setting up the Math Resource Center online. The MRC website now has a table with all of the time slots for the week and a link for each course.
"We tried to coordinate projects as much as possible. For example, in Calculus I, all of the recitation instructors switched to discussion boards, and they worked together to create more thought-out templates and prompts," Brummer said. "Then, everyone would share, and we would centralize those on a Wiki. Other instructors could post and let their students discuss and then we would monitor those discussions."
One positive result of the extra work of the spring shutdown was that the task force had previously discussed the desire to make supplemental videos for the courses' content, which could be embedded in the open resource textbook or made accessible to students as optional, additional materials. To assist the instructors, the department bought several iPads, as they are highly suitable for recording a lecture and have the ability to write on the slides as lecturers' present. As a result, the department quickly had its collection of recorded lectures.
Spring courses were fully asynchronous to support all students regardless of their technological resources at home. Summer courses were completely online from the start and most were synchronous, where students met and discussed course material, working in groups in much the same way as with in-person classes.
"The summer mode allowed instructors to focus on delivering content online. Their focus was not split between in the classroom and online. It allowed our instructors to become experts in one area instead of trying to balance multiple areas," said Wakefield, an associate professor of practice.
Wakefield also shifted the pedagogy course for graduate students to focus on the online and hybrid models in the spring, and then the summer orientation focused on how to operate in the hybrid model for the fall. The second-year graduate students coming into the fall semester had 24 hours' worth of orientation work, and they had been meeting for two-and-a-half hours a week for continued professional development, plus homework to complete on their own.
For the fall, the university put a priority on in-person instruction, to better meet students' expectations. What has to come to bear is that the students prefer their overall college experience to be in-person, while the format of their classes can vary, depending on the course.
"I think there are some students for whom being able to come in-person is incredibly important, and other students are happy to be on Zoom all the time and they can make that work. It's kind of split by student preference," Donsig said.
Wakefield added: "The biggest challenge of the fall format is an inconsistency of approach because students come to class one day and then they have to figure out how to do it online for two days. When we've got students doing the same thing, consistently, they tend to do it much better."
In Spring 2021, UNL has mandated that every student in an in-person class should have the opportunity to attend in-person at least once a week, a requirement math department courses already met this fall.
Policies and guidance developed last spring by the task force can now be implemented in Spring 2021.
"This spring, we're going to be able to have instructors teaching with full focus on a single type of student engaging in the course, so small groups in the classroom or larger online sections, supported with a few learning assistants. But, no matter what, all students are attending the same way. That will have a good impact," Brummer said.
— Lindsay Augustyn